"Spencer!" was all the young man heard before he saw the blur of long, dark hair charging towards him at top speed and into his waiting arms.
"Kennedy!" he shouted joyously, before she knocked the wind out of him by crashing into his chest. Neither of them seemed to mind the impact much though as they embraced each other tightly.
Spencer looked over the mass of hair to see his three other best friends grinning as they made their way towards him. From the looks on their faces, he could tell that Kennedy had been through this routine with each of them already today.
"I've missed you so damn much, Spence! It's about time you showed up!" she exclaimed into his chest.
"I've missed you too, Ken," he chuckled, ruffling her hair, which he noticed was almost as long as it had been in high school.
"How are you, Spence?" she asked just loud enough for him to be able to hear her.
It was such a simple question, but by the change in her tone, Spencer knew exactly what she meant by it. After all, it had only been a month since his big breakup with Emma Gold. His heart was still broken, but he still hadn't given up all hope. They broke up once before and after a year and a half, he had managed to find her in his arms again. He was sure they'd be together again soon. It was only a matter of time.
"I'm fine. Law school will keep me distracted and busy, so it'll be good for me to be single," he lied airily. By the strange sound she made, it was obvious that she didn't believe him. But that didn't matter; "How are you, Ken?"
Her blue eyes rose to meet his and he instantly saw the flicker of pain behind them. It broke his heart a little more to see that his dearest friend was hurting. She quickly buried her face back into his chest and their embrace tightened.
Finally reached the pair, Harrison gently pulled Kennedy away from Spencer, much to her chagrin, "Let him breathe, Hunter."
"Man, Ken," Max teased, "I don't think I've ever seen you move like that. You looked crazed."
In reply, she childishly stuck her tongue out at him and pouted. It went ignored however, as the four young men greeted and embraced each other. It had been almost 5 months since they had all been together. Their joy and excitement at being reunited, despite the reason for the reunion, was overwhelming.
"Alright then, where are we headed to next?" Max asked, stifling a yawn. Having traveled the furthest of them all, he was feeling more than a bit jet lagged.
"Poor Max," Kennedy laughed, grabbing onto his arm, "Let's head to the hotel so we can leave our stuff and you can take a nap. Then we'll go from there."
"I like that plan," Max agreed happily as Kennedy guided him towards the exit.
Spencer purposely stood with Harrison and Dylan for a few moments without moving, before finally gathering their luggage. The other two knew exactly what Spencer was thinking so they moved slowly, allowing Kennedy and Max to drift ahead.
"How is she, guys?" Spencer asked softly, even though there was no way she could've ever heard him.
All three of them watched Kennedy carefully from where they stood. She was laughing and teasing Max, looking as though she had not a care in the world. If they did not know her, they would've seen a beautiful and happy young woman, having a nice time with her friend.
"She's been like that all day," Dylan replied, with a shrug. He had been the first one to arrive at the airport only a couple of hours ago with Kennedy arriving shortly after, "She's been really excited to see everyone, of course."
"But how is she really?" Spencer asked knowingly.
Harrison sighed, "You know how she gets around this time of year. This year really isn't all that different. She's just a lot more nervous because she's here, but also really happy that we're all here with her for it."
"I'm really proud of her though," Dylan said thoughtfully, "For finally doing this."
The other two nodded in agreement and they trudged towards the exit where Kennedy and Max were waiting impatiently.
The hotel was a half-hour drive from the airport. It was right in the center of the city and only about fifteen-minutes from where they needed to go. Kennedy was the only one who had ever been here before, so the others observed their new surroundings in silence, only occasionally glancing at the brunette in their presence. It wasn't much to look at, but it kept them distracted from the heavy silence that enveloped them.
With every passing moment, as they got deeper and deeper into the city, Kennedy became quieter and more withdrawn. By the time they arrived, Kennedy was silent and noticeably paler.
"Stop looking at me like that," she grumbled, once they entered the hotel room, "I'm not going to break, okay?"
Harrison wrapped his arms around her waist and kissed her cheek, "We know that, Hunter. We're just worried about you."
"You can't blame us for it," Spencer added, "It's only because we love you. We're here for you."
Without a word, Kennedy pulled away from Harrison, headed straight into the bathroom, and locked the door. She turned on the faucet and allowed the water to get as hot as she could handle. After splashing some hot water on her face, she glanced up at her reflection.
The girl in the mirror stared back with eyes slightly red from the strain of trying not to cry. Under her eyes were dark circles on her otherwise beautiful face; circles that always managed to appear around this time of year. Her eyes were the only physical evidence of the depression she felt.
A sudden feeling of guilt for her behavior towards her friends weighed down on her. Spencer was right, of course; they were only here because of her. She had been the one to ask them all to come along. And after dealing with her like this for the past 4 years, she knew they couldn't be blamed in the slightest for worrying.
Kennedy sighed as she turned off the water and dabbed her face dry with the towel hanging beside her. She knew she could do this, she had to, because her heart knew that she had put this off for long enough. It was time to stop running away from this.
It was a beautiful spring day, but Kennedy couldn't be bothered to enjoy it. It was taking all her focus and strength to make it to this spot without breaking down or turning back. She could feel four pairs of eyes watching her from a short distance away as she searched for the marker that she had only looked at once before.
"Pete," she murmured, suddenly feeling short of breath as she spotted the dark gray stone that bore his name.
Tears rushed to her eyes instantly as she slowly fell to the floor to touch the engraving of her brother's name. It was cool and smooth but she withdrew her hand quickly as though it had burned her.
"I'm so sorry," she managed to whisper before all other thoughts escaped her and her tears spilled out effortlessly.
She had expected that this would be hard but she had thought that she'd have better control than this. Five years should have dulled the pain at least a little bit, but here she stood, hurting as much as she had then over the loss of her brother. This day was always the hardest day of the year for Kennedy. No one could help her forget her final moments with her brother, the helplessness she had felt, the heat from the fire, the pain of her ankle, Peter's final words, or the final look he gave her before rushing back into their burning home.
The knowledge that she was standing on his grave, where her brother rested for now and would always rest, was killing her. Then again, what lay beneath her wasn't really her brother anymore, beneath her were his unrecognizable remains. That thought was even more painful.She was stupid to think that she'd be able to do this now. Year after year, she'd avoided this very experience, and now, she understood exactly why. She missed him more now than ever before. It was all more than she could bear.
And within moments, the four young men who had saved her after the greatest tragedy of her life were surrounding her. She could feel them reaching for her, holding her, calling for her, and the pain in her chest grew fainter. More than she ever had before, she was grateful to have her four friends with her. They were her strength, and with them here, she could get through anything.
"Are you ok, babe?" Harrison whispered, to which she could only nod.
"Guys," she finally managed to speak, "This is my brother."
Harrison stayed beside her, holding her close as the other three young men nodded their heads respectively.
She then gestured to the other two stones beside Peter's, identical in shape and size. "My parents," she informed them in a whisper.
The boys stared at the three stones in silence. This was Kennedy's family; the rest of the Hunters. They had never known them, but they felt connected to them all the same.
She shakily moved down to the floor to rest her hand on Peter's grave stone, with Harrison moving with her. "Hey Pete. I'm sorry it's taken me so long to get here but you used to tell me, better late than never, right?"
Wiping away her tears, she stared off into the distance. Harrison gave her hand a gentle squeeze, "It's okay, Hunter. We're here for you. We love you."
"I know," she whispered, offering him a slight smile, "These are the guys, Pete. I just had to bring them along. I hope you don't mind. We've all come a long way to be here today because, guess what. With their help, I've finally stopped trying to run away."
Kennedy's four young escorts thought this would be the best moment to back away several feet to allow her to visit with her brother and parents in private. She spoke softly into the breeze, gently wiping away at the occasional tear that streaked her face. She told them about her life in the past five years since she had been here; such happy years they had been considering her loss of them. She told them about the wonderful few couple weeks she had had; graduating from university and performing at her first piano recital in years. She told them about her plans for her future; she was already a teacher's assistant and would soon enough have a classroom with students of her own. She told them about her friends; they had stuck by her side the past 5 years, even if they did sometimes go months without seeing each other. And finally, she told them about her love; her wedding was fast approaching and she couldn't have been more excited to marry Harrison.
"Spencer will give me away at the wedding," she said, wiping away a stray tear, "I wish it could be you, Pete."
"Kennedy," her fiance said softly, placing a hand on her shoulder, "Are you ok?"
She hadn't heard him approaching so she was a bit startled by his touch. "Yeah, Chase, I am. I think I'm ready to go now," she replied, allowing him to help her to her feet.
A flutter made her freeze in place. There was a small sparrow that had landed on top of Peter's stone. It stood still just staring at her in silence. Kennedy took a step towards it but it still just sat there looking completely unafraid of her. She couldn't help but smile, though her eyes quickly filled.
It was then that she finally noticed an old, worn down clay stone that rested at the base of the grave, hidden by the tall grass and partially by the grave itself. She recognized it immediately. Without having to inspect it, she knew the stone said, "PH NL KH: The Three Musketeers". A fresh batch of tears streamed down her face as she recalled the happy days of her past. Those were the days before Harrison and the others. Those were the days when her world revolved around Peter and Nathan. These were days that were a lifetime ago for her.
Harrison quickly took her into his arms to console her.
"I love you so much, Harrison," she sighed.
"I love you too, Kennedy," he replied, and after a moment's pause, he added, "I wonder though; is it bad that the greatest tragedy of your life led the the happiness of mine?"
"No, not at all," she responded with a faint smile, "Because the greatest tragedy of my life also led me to you."
She could feel his smile as he pressed his lips against her temple. Her eyes wandered back to the clay stone and, after a quick kiss on his cheek, she pushed Harrison away. She picked up the heavy stone and found something that had not been there way back when she had made it. There, taped on the back of the stone, was a small laminated photo. It had been taken back when they were children and brought back a dozen new memories.
Tucked behind it, she noticed a folded sheet of paper with her name written on it in familiar handwriting. She glanced at Harrison before eagerly opening the note.
Hey Kiddo. Oh, I really hope you get this this year. I've written one every year, hoping that you'll discover it if and when you finally come visit here. I'm so proud of you for finally doing it. I hope it brings you the peace I know you need. And if this helps at all, I want to let you know that I'm doing really well. I got married last winter, Kennedy. Can you believe it? Because sometimes, I can't. But goodness, she's beautiful and understanding and I love her dearly. We found out last week that she's going to have a baby. I'm so excited. I'm hoping for a boy and god, I hope that he finds a best friend like Peter Hunter and a first love like you.
My life didn't turn out the way I had expected it too, but I'm happy, kiddo. And I really hope that you are too. You being happy always did make me happy. I miss you and hope you're doing well. The wife says hello. Maybe one day, you two can meet. I know she'd like that. Take care, Kennedy.
With new tears in her eyes, she folded the sheet of paper back up and slipping it into her pocket. "Do any of you have a pen and paper?" she asked loudly for all four of the men to hear her.
"I do," Dylan volunteered, pulling a pocket-sized notebook and pen from his pocket.
"You are such the journalist," Max teased, as Dylan handed Kennedy his things.
Kennedy paused to give Max a reproachful look, "Yes and that is why the Times is so incredibly lucky to have him as their new intern."
"I was just kidding," he said quickly, with his perfected look of pure innocence.
Ignoring him, she refocused on her task and quickly wrote something down. Four curious pairs of eyes followed her as she tore out the note and placed it into the slot behind the photo on the stone in place of the one she had extracted. With a satisfied look, she returned Dylan's pen and paper and they slowly returned to the car.
"I just needed to leave a note of thanks to an old friend," was all she offered as an explanation. It was then that she realized just how remarkable this trip truly was. It did not cause her as much pain as she had expected; in fact, it had done more good than anything else. Never before on this day had she felt more at peace.
Author's Note: I'm done!! Wow. I'm so sorry if this chapter was at all disappointing; I know there are a lot of weak points and that it's kind of short. An epilogue is a lot harder than I had thought. I wanted to subtly fit in everything while also making a realistic type of scene, but obviously, that's impossible.
Anyways, writing this was an amazing experience. It was really hard, but also really fun. I thank every single one of you repeatedly for all your input and encouragement. You guys mean so much to me, it's insane. So thank you for taking the time out to read all this and thank you even more for reviewing! I'm really sorry for making all you lovely people wait so long.
I am kind of experimenting with a new story, called Life as I Know It. Feel free to check it out. Now that I've finished this semester of school, I'm hoping to be able to begin writing again. I'm also trying to catch up on the stories that I had been neglecting to read and review. Take care, everyone!!